David Buimovitch/AP

Bibi Netanyahu Has Never Wanted to Negotiate With Anyone

From Oslo to Geneva, the Israeli premier has never really been willing to compromise. By Michael Hirsh

Existential issues cut both ways. That is perhaps what is most unnerving—and, for Israel and the United States, potentially dangerous—about Benjamin Netanyahu's seeming unwillingness to countenance any agreement, either with the Iranians or the Palestinians. Netanyahu wants confrontation, not negotiation, with Tehran—yet that approach has brought Tehran from a mere 164 centrifuges at a single pilot plant a decade ago to a network of secret nuclear facilities and 19,000 centrifuges today, and to the brink of nuclear-weapons status. Netanyahu wants to put off talks on a Palestinian state, yet many Israelis (including the erstwhile uber-hawk Ariel Sharon, before he was silenced by a stroke) have come to realize that time is against Israel on that score because there may soon be more Arabs than Jews under Israeli control, including the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, and Israel could come to be seen as an apartheid rather than a Jewish state.

What needs to be understood about Bibi Netanyahu, who may prove in coming months to be the chief obstacle to a longer-term rapprochement between the U.S. and Iran, is that non-negotiation has been an article of faith with him for his entire political career. It is an attitude that goes back to his first term as prime minister in the late 1990s, when he privately boasted that he had "de facto put an end to the Oslo Accords."

Yes, Netanyahu has ample reason to sound alarms about the current state of negotiations with both the Iranians and the Palestinians. Both sets of talks are fraught with risks. But the argument can be made—and is being made, both by the Obama administration and many Israelis—that the far greater risk to Israel's future and to U.S. strategy in the Middle East lies in continuing a policy of confrontation.

What is most disturbing, even to some Israeli defense and intelligence experts, is Netanyahu's blunt unwillingness to compromise on either issue. Amos Yadlin, the former head of the IDF's Military Intelligence, told Israeli TV that the hard-line criticism of the interim nuclear deal with Iran misses a subtle but crucial point: The terms are good enough for a temporary freeze that will allow the negotiations to continue—which is what this is—even though they would not suffice for a permanent deal, which would require dismantlement. But the Obama administration also understands that; it has been careful to say that the real talks are only now beginning. Yadlin added the Iranians "understand that this is a test," and it would be "illogical for them to breach [the interim deal] in the next six months" by restarting enrichment toward weapons-grade uranium. He noted that President Obama has committed himself to ensuring there is no Iranian bomb, and he said that the unprecedented international consensus on a tough sanctions regime, in which Netanyahu puts so much stock, might well have collapsed had the U.S. held out for a tougher deal that would have been tantamount to Iranian surrender.

Nor was there any chance that such a surrender was going to happen. New Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, needed to appease their own hard-liners back home with some sanctions relief, in a way that Netanyahu refuses to acknowledge.

Netanyahu's obstructionism has a long history. A videotape of him speaking to a gathering of right-wing settlers in 2001 is as revealing of his true feelings about the Palestinians as his good friend Mitt Romney's infamous "47 percent" videotape was of the former Republican candidate's beliefs about the American electorate. In Netanyahu's first term, he appeared to negotiate at Wye River in 1998 and praised President Clinton for his efforts to come to an interim deal, but he later revealed to the settlers that he'd only been gaming the president. Netanyahu allowed that he had said he would honor the Oslo Accords, but then described how he had undermined them by eliciting American agreement to let him define security zones that Israel could maintain. Then he effectively defined the "entire Jordan Valley" as a military zone. "From that moment on, I de facto put an end to the Oslo Accords," he said.

American negotiators were furious with his tactics—just as Obama has been since 2009. "Netanyahu was nearly insufferable, lecturing us and telling us how to deal with the Arabs," U.S. negotiator Dennis Ross wrote in his 2004 memoir, The Missing Peace. "After Netanyahu was gone, President Clinton observed: 'He thinks he is the superpower, and we are here to do whatever he requires.'" In his successful campaign against Netanyahu in 1999, Ehud Barak used a slogan proposed by his U.S. campaign strategists Bob Shrum, Stanley Greenberg, and James Carville: "Takuah, takuah, takuah," or "Stuck, stuck, stuck." Barak later pushed for a peace deal at great speed, culminating in Yasser Arafat's heartbreaking rebuff to Barak's historically unprecedented offer at Camp David in 2000. Barak's successor, Ariel Sharon, turned over Gaza under a cloud of controversy and was planning to unilaterally disengage from some two-thirds of the West Bank, according to his former adviser, when he suffered a stroke in January 2006.

To be fair, Hamas' electoral victory in 2006—elections encouraged by the Americans as part of the George W. Bush administration's democracy panacea for the region—and later seizure of power in Gaza has made negotiations with the Palestinian Authority vastly more difficult. Even so, Netanyahu has, for the most part, just started up new settlements.

Netanyahu, of course, has an important role to play as the "bad cop" to American outreach, especially on Iran. "Why should the Israeli government praise this deal?" Philip Zelikow, who helped to set the Iran deal in motion as counselor to then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in 2006, said at a forum in Washington on Tuesday. "Why should they say anything good about it all? I don't see anything in it for them saying so."

And yet the very real fear about Netanyahu is that, for him, this stance is not just a tactic; it represents a fundamental worldview that will prevent Israel from aligning itself with U.S. efforts to remake the geopolitics of the region as long as he is in office.

As we've seen in recent weeks, during the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, Americans relish historical "what ifs." What if Oswald had missed in Dallas: Would we have avoided the disaster of Vietnam? What if, in the 2000 presidential election, those 500-odd votes in Florida had gone the other way: Very likely we would have avoided a decade of disaster in Iraq and Afghanistan. Israelis can play their own version of this sad game: What if Yigal Amir, Yitzhak Rabin's assassin, had been stopped, and that most visionary of recent Israeli leaders had been able to pursue his plans to pursue Oslo and hand over part of the West Bank? And what if Tzipi Livni, the heir to the pro-Palestinian-state Kadima Party started by Sharon, had been able to muster the votes to form her own coalition in 2009, making her prime minister rather than Netanyahu?

Livni is now in charge of the Palestinian negotiations under Netanyahu, but it is very doubtful she has the freedom of action she needs to make a deal. Not when it's very likely that her prime minister doesn't want one.